Following a celebration with centenarians in Johnston last Thursday, Governor Gina Raimondo took time to share insights into some hot button issues affecting the state along with her thoughts on the November elections.
The governor and other officials from around the state recently tried to entice Amazon to build its second headquarters in Rhode Island, proposing sites in Pawtucket, Central Falls and the “Superman” building in downtown Providence amongst others as part of their proposal. While the state’s plan was ultimately turned down, the town of Johnston had also submitted a proposal that included sites consisting of more than 150 acres of undeveloped property along Hartford Avenue, which was not included in the state’s final proposal.
Cited as an opportunity of a generation by Mayor Joseph Polisena, the town of Johnston is eager to develop these swaths of land, which were only recently connected to sewer and water lines. With the town’s section of Hartford Avenue slated to be repaved this year, and rumors of major developers looking at the area, the sites offer a prime location with highway access in the center of the state.
“I agree with the mayor, it’s a huge opportunity to create jobs and have industry and business. I think that we should focus on the business opportunities there. My team, and particularly the Commerce Department, is working very closely with the mayor to try to develop that land,” said Raimondo. “What we can do is, we can offer fast track permitting, quick and efficient access to DEM [Department of Environmental Management] to get things done because businesses want to move quickly. We’re open to using some of our tax incentives, if that helps, to get business on that land. We’re going to keep working with our team and the mayor, and I think we’ll do it. It’s prime real estate, and I like our chances.”
Raimondo acknowledged that there had been challenges with the quality of the conditions of Johnston’s and the state’s roads, from Greenville Avenue and the construction of the new Citizens Bank campus, to Hartford Avenue’s sewer and water line projects along with road construction elsewhere.
“First let me say, the RhodeWorks program will benefit Johnston significantly because it will make sure that we have the money that we need to fix the roads in Johnston and all over the state. Right now, we’re working on dozens of high priority road and bridge projects all over the state,” she said.
The governor highlighted big Johnston projects under the RhodeWorks plan; resurfacing Hartford Avenue from Atwood Avenue to Killingly Street slated to be completed by November; and the Hartford Avenue work from the Scituate border to 295.
“Of all the RhodeWorks projects that we’ve done, since we’ve started, 95 percent of them – almost all of them – have been done on time and on budget,” said Raimondo. “And we’re going to do that in Johnston, too.”
The governor then addressed the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, which manages the Central Landfill in Johnston. For decades, Johnston has served as the host town for much of the state’s waste. Recent estimates have placed a figure of approximately 20 years before the landfill reaches capacity, and the governor addressed the future of the facility.
“Two thoughts: we have a new executive director [Joe Reposa] who is very experienced. I’ve asked him, along with my appointees to the board, to come up with a plan,” said Raimondo. “I don’t know exactly what the solution is, and frankly I’m not an expert and a lot of it is technical. But that’s why we recruited a new person who has a lot of expertise. We have some time, but we have charged him and the board members there to come up with a plan.”
The governor said, as a state, residents and businesses need to try harder to produce less waste and continue recycling efforts while reducing the use of non-recyclables. “That’s the best way to get a longer life out of what we have,” she said.
Raimondo has focused on school improvements following the release of a third party statewide assessment, the Jacobs Report, in 2017, which found that more than $1 billion was needed to bring the state’s schools up to 21st century standards. She’s toured schools across the state since, including Sarah Dyer Barnes Elementary in Johnston, to get a feel of what teachers and administrators need. She also addressed the needs for school safety following recent school shootings nationwide.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in schools in Johnston and elsewhere. They’re not where they need to be, mostly because they are very old. That’s why I’m proposing a big school building bond. We need to rebuild a lot of these schools. They’re not where they need to be,” she said.
Calling the maintenance departments of schools “amazing” and that they work magic with what they have to keep facilities clean, safe and warm, the governor cited Massachusetts’ seven school building bonds over the last 10 year compared to none in Rhode Island for the last 20 years.
“How do you make schools safe? You have doors that lock, windows that lock, intercom systems that work perfectly in every single room, a locked area because a lot of these buildings are wide open,” said Raimondo. “We need to invest; it’s not rocket science.”
While several principals in Johnston had recently stated that the need for officers or more weapons in every school may be necessary, Raimondo felt otherwise.
“We have resource officers and security officers, and I think that’s good and they do a fantastic job. But in terms of arming teachers or arming more people in schools, that’s not the answer. The answer is fewer guns,” said Raimondo. “By the way, in addition to being governor I’m a mother. I don’t like the thought of my kids in a classroom with guns.”
In reference to her proposal for tolls on Rhode Island’s highways, which are slightly behind schedule in terms of completion, the governor does not expect any significant shortfalls in of the state budget from the delays.
“Of the whole RhodeWorks budget, only 10 percent comes from the tolls. I think we’re about thirty days behind right now, so it’s not a meaningful amount,” she said. “But I do want to reiterate, there will be no tolls on cars. No tolls on cars. I’m not in favor of it, we don’t need it, it’s not going to happen.”
A recent report from GoLocal indicated that attendance numbers at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket may have been skewed and are lower than what’s being reported. While unfamiliar with the report at the time of the interview, the governor stated that she still supports keeping the PawSox in Rhode Island.
“Pawtucket needs it; Pawtucket needs the economic development. We’ll lose money if the PawSox go to Worcester. It’s the best deal in minor league baseball and a very good deal for taxpayers,” said Raimondo. “My thing was, let’s keep the PawSox in Pawtucket and protect taxpayers, and this deal does that.”
As far as marijuana is concerned, the governor indicated that a slower pace towards possible legalization is still warranted.
“I think it’s a difficult issue. I’m not opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana. But I’m not in a rush to do it either because other states, like Colorado, are struggling with it. Too many kids are showing up high to school, teachers out there are struggling to get kids to focus,” she said. “I’ve talked to employers and manufactures and they say, ‘Please don’t do this, Governor.” It’s hard enough to get people to work now, and then to fail a drug test. Plus it’s still illegal at the federal level.”
Raimondo provided Electric Boat as an example of an employer that would not accept a potential employee if a drug test was not passed. She stated that “we have to regulate it and get it right.”
While facing a tough reelection this November against several potential candidates, Raimondo feels that she is the person best suited for the job now.
“Our economy is stronger than it has been in decades, and I don’t want to put all that at risk. In 2014 when I ran we had the highest unemployment rate in the country. I don’t want to go back to that. We’ve gone from the highest unemployment rate in America to cranes in the sky and people working with a 4.3 percent unemployment rate,” she said. “I don’t want to put that at risk, I want to keep going. Let’s build the schools, let’s fix the roads, let’s get more people to work. I’d like the chance to finish that job and keep it going.”